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Ask MOA: What Are These Tools?

Ask MOA: What Is It? is your opportunity to ask MOA Curators and Collections staff about an artwork or other mystery object at home that you’ve always wondered about. We select certain inquiries and objects to feature online.

This featured Ask MOA case is about stone tools found in Saskatchewan.

Question from inquirer:

“These stones are from my grandparents’ farm in Saskatchewan near Kindersley. They were found in a field of unbroken prairie. Are they Indigenous tools? If so, how were they used?”

Answer from Susan Rowley:

You asked if these are Indigenous tools and the answer is “Yes.” Imagine a tool you can use to drive in tent pegs, kill disabled animals quickly, chop branches into firewood, break up bison bones to extract the marrow, and pound berries and meats for making pemmican. What you have is the stone head of this multi-purpose tool.

Many different First Nations in the Prairies used these effective multipurpose tools. Each has a word in their own language for them. In English they are often called pounders. Archaeologists refer to the style of stone head in the images you sent as grooved mauls.

The groove that runs around the stone head is critical. It functions to attach the handle to the stone. This groove is made by repetitively pecking the stone with another stone. This laborious task takes many hours. It is hard to tell the material from images, but it looks as if the whiter one on the top may be quartzite and the other on the bottom may be granite. Quartzite is a very hard stone.

The handle is made from a stick.  This is attached to the stone head using rawhide. The hide is attached when it is slightly damp. As it dries, it shrinks and forms a strong, durable attachment between the head and handle. This image below is a Blackfoot pounder in the collection of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.

Blackfoot Pounder, Penn Museum, CG2016-2-441.

People often want to know, “How old is it?” These tools are very durable and can be used for many generations. While most of the grooved mauls found in datable contexts date to the last two thousand years, they have also been found in very ancient Indigenous sites going back many thousands of years.

Many people have Indigenous heritage collected on family farms. This heritage is irreplaceable. If you are looking for a future home for these pieces I would recommend contacting the local First Nation or Indigenous-run heritage organization.

Please do not disturb ancient Indigenous sites by digging into them or collecting ancient tools. These places are full of history. In Canada, each province and territory has legislation that aims to protect ancient heritage and governs the work of archaeologists. However, much of this legislation was written without Indigenous involvement and claims Indigenous heritage and ancient tools for the Crown and the people of the province. In many jurisdictions this legislation in being reviewed and rewritten as part of ongoing work in reconciliation and in implementing our obligations under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.